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Local photographer documents historical hairstyle

Tamerra Griffin | 8/1/2013, 11:35 a.m.
Brooklyn’s Black creatives flocked to the Powerhouse Arena last Friday to don their funkiest indie threads, swirl complimentary wine and ...
"I really appreciate having the opportunity and people lending me their time and their effort, to be in front of the camera and to say some words about what hair means to them," photographer Michael July said of the publishing experience. (Tamerra Griffin photos)

Brooklyn’s Black creatives flocked to the Powerhouse Arena last Friday to don their funkiest indie threads, swirl complimentary wine and celebrate the beauty of the Afro.

Photographer Michael July released his Kickstarter-funded coffee table book, “Afros: A Celebration of Natural Hair,” at the artistic space. Over the course of six years, the Clinton Hill native photographed more than 300 Afro-sporting men and women in New York City; Atlanta; Philadelphia; Chicago; Washington, D.C.; and various cities in California.

The glossy-paged hardback features images of men and women of different races and their Afros of every imaginable length, color and texture. Some are posed against predetermined backdrops, while others are captured in candid street photos. Accompanying the images are personal testimonies by the subjects—famous academic Cornel West being one of them—explaining their decisions to grow their ’fro.

At the launch, July took a moment away from signing books and posing for photographs to talk to the AmNews about his inspiration to publish “Afros.” Like so many artists, it began with an unanswered question.

“I’ve collected a lot of Black art and memorabilia, like ‘Soul Train,’ since I was a little kid,” said July, who wears his hair in thin locks. “A lot of my heroes in theʼ’60s, ’70s and ’80s had Afros. I tried to research the history of Afros, but there really wasn’t anything that was in a book. I just thought I’d do a book to illustrate respectfully who we are and where we came from.”

Nykki Nichole was one of the subjects July shot for “Afros.” The local singer-songwriter recalled the way she was approached to model her coiffure for the book.

“He came up to me and said, ‘You know what? I love your hair. Can I take a photograph?’ It was very organic Brooklyn,” she said.

July said that while he did not notice any particular distinction among Afro styles in the different cities he visited, the desire to liberate oneself from damaging and ecologically hazardous hair practices was a universal motivation to change styles.

“For people who wear their hair natural, there seems to be a kind of kinship, because it’s a really sustainable movement and consciousness that they have,” he said.

He has noticed that the style of the Afro has changed since the ’60s; 50 years ago, people preferred carefully rounded Afros, whereas now, the less tamed, Questlove-esque hairdos and pinned-back faux hawks have become popular.

Despite these changes, July remains confident that the Afro is not simply a passing political fashion statement.

“I think natural hair will never go away,” he said. “People will continue to embrace it and do funky things.”

“Afros: A Celebration of Natural Hair” sells for just under $45 and can be purchased at Powerhouse Arena in Brooklyn.